Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 15 May, 2006

The costuming is modern, the set (such as it is: a desk, a fridge, some plastic stacking chairs on an otherwise bare stage) minimal, but the atmosphere of Cheek By Jowl’s debut presentation in their Barbican residency is decidedly expressionistic. During the main plot, in which Beatrice-Joanna enlists the help of one admirer to murder a second so that she can marry a third, the lighting is almost as murky as in a Katie Mitchell production; occasionally a bright shaft will illuminate Beatrice or her minion-turned-blackmailer, the carbuncular De Flores, as they lurk behind a buttress for an aside or two. In contrast, the subplot, in which a couple more lovesick swains disguise themselves as inmates of an asylum in order to woo the keeper’s young wife, is lit in harsh fluorescent tones.

The acting, too, is slow and over-emphatic. This may be partly a response to the remade Barbican space: it has once again been turned into a medium-sized amphitheatre (with possibly the most uncomfortable seating in London), in a way which makes it feel less intimate even though it is appreciably smaller than usual. Mostly, though, such an approach simply irks. It seems to fly in the face of director Declan Donnellan’s proclaimed general principles of trying to avoid imposing a particular vision and instead simply “letting life happen” in the actors’ performances; surely there is little naturally lively in a delivery so mannered that one player even pauses between the words “bring” and “forth”. To be sure, Jacobean tragedies such as this work by Middleton & Rowley are shadowy labyrinths of man’s basest impulses: lust, power, revenge and the like. But we can get that impression from the plays themselves without needing to see it spelt out in a staging that conflicts with the all-too-human actions driven by those impulses. Olivia Williams as Beatrice-Joanna becomes briefly compelling in the latter stages when she acknowledges her own dark love for De Flores (Will Keen), but for much of the time she is a mere creature of the performance style... a style which at times makes the narrative itself hard to follow even for those of us who have previously acted in the play.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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